“Mewling Quim”: Watching Marvel’s Avengers Assemble

(Some possible spoilers ahead)

I saw a film that surprisingly impressed me this weekend. That film, you might reasonably guess correctly is ‘Marvel: Avengers Assemble’ (long UK release name henceforth referred to as Avengers). I grew up with animated series like X-Men, as well as the Marvel Action Hour in the early-mid 1990s and although X-Men has not been as impressive in its film incarnations, I have always been drawn to characters like Iron Man and Captain America. I think Marvel Studios and the Marvel Empire at large recognise that a good amount of money can be made from fanboys.

So why was this film so awesome? There were many elements, going to see the film with friends who mutually appreciated the Marvel Universe did help. Seeing the overweight nerd men with bald heads and their Captain America and Thor paraphernalia did make me feel at home, of course I’m nothing like them (I was wearing an Iron Man t-shirt). The question of ‘who’s your favourite?’ came up. There is something about ensemble films that are immensely attractive to the public consciousness, I suppose that is why so many people enjoy films such as The Godfather.

I was thinking of the Marvel Universe earlier last year when I was reading through the works of Howard Philips Lovecraft? Why, because there is a sense that I feel that Lovecraft had an earlier notion of a grand narrative unifying many stories through the same universe in the same way that the Marvel comic universes do. There is something almost operatic about creating imaginary worlds and entertaining creative space within them. For too long people have undermined or scoffed at these media forms as either lowbrow or base or childish, the same is said for computer games as an artform; comics and the graphic novel as a literary form.

Getting into superheroes got me into Homer. If you want to call superhero mythology base, then consider the pages of gruesome violence in Homer’s Iliad. Consider the use of supernatural imagery in the likes of Milton’s Paradise Lost when you consider super powers and demigods as childish.

Thinking with more critical lenses lately, I was thinking about the nature of the characters in the Avengers film. It was notable for instance that it was an almost all male affair, however the presence of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is not an obviously feminine or trope-like character. I thought that it was of note that her character showed the most vulnerability which seemed linked to her gender, but I am willing to be convinced that the depiction of vulnerability may have been set up as a ruse in one scene with Loki, or when she was present with Bruce Banner’s character, she had a genuine sense of fear that anyone would at the power of Banner’s alter ego. It’s also fair to say that many of the male characters showed a sense of vulnerability, especially towards the endgame of the film. There was a sense of futility and hopelessness among all of them which also served as a bonding moment between the characters, as well as between us (the audience) and the characters.

After I saw the film, I noticed an online discussion about one specific issue. The character of Loki uses an antiquated expletive in the scene with Black Widow where he refers to her as a “Mewling Quim”. I really don’t know what to think of this. It has been argued by the critic Mark Kermode (who surprisingly rates the film quite well). I didn’t notice this or know about this word when I saw the film, however it seems of note that a small number of (adult) viewers discovered this slight. This term requires a bit of context and apparently has regional significance. I was listening to a podcast last week on Radio 4 by Will Self who talked about the philistine trend of critiquing books for using words that are considered verbose or that many readers are not familiar with. The use of unusual or difficult language should be applauded, although there is some real power to the insult that Loki says which distinctly symbolically feminises Black Widow as a way of undermining her.

I might say a bit about the portrayal of vulnerability in the other male characters. Robert Downey Jr’s ‘Tony Stark’ shares his experience of mortality with Bruce Banner (well played by Mark Ruffalo, who was once better remembered by me in the lame film ’13 going on 30′) and both characters address how their special powers are also a source of difficulty and pain for them. The power source of Iron Man is also the very thing that keeps him alive and dependent, and Stark speculates that Banner’s Hulk is similarly a source of self preservation as well as destruction. A caring side is shown in the characters which gives wider dimensions to them. Stark has his lover Pepper Potts, Thor shows some concern for his friend Jane Foster and Agent Coulson is a beloved character to all of them. It may be that I am overplaying the femininity of Black Widow’s vulnerability in that many of the other characters show moments of emotional turmoil or depth. I wonder if this film passes the Bechdel test. Considering that there were only two main female characters in the film I suspect not, but there is hardly an emphasis on romance or sexuality. I noticed in one billboard appeared the actress for Maria Hill, the agent working under Nick Fury, even though she was not as prominent a character in the film, it was nice that an important supporting character was featured.

This was a film that had it all as far as a fanboy as myself is concerned. The drama, pathos, comedy and action elements of the comic and cartoon world put in a film experience. I’m really glad that the film impressed me as it did, as I have quite low standards for films after many disappointments, many of the films leading up to the Avengers, for instance were hit and miss. There is a sense in which this film seems to capture a mindset of the status quo. The plotline of the tesseract as a form of ‘clean’ energy is an interesting one of contemporary relevance. The clandestine behaviour of S.H.I.E.L.D. and their borderline unethical plans reflect a distrust of institutional authority. The coda of the film where various talking heads talk about the Avengers and the range of opinions about them reflect a media age where criticism and a variety of views and fears are addressed, some of these threads of discussion in the coda are addressed in the comic and animated incarnations of the Avengers and wider Marvel comics (such as the Civil War story arc).

What more can be said of this film? Awesome actors, great action and a genuine sense of surprise about much of the plot: I didn’t expect one Avenger to be so noble and powerful compared to everyone else (the one who ‘defeated’ loki). The comedy mixed in well, plus I did the embarrassing thing of jumping at cinematic moments of surprise. I don’t think anybody noticed though. A great soundtrack by Alan Silvestri, who is also known for such great films soundtracks as Predator. A film soundtrack is as important as the plotline or dialogue. I saw the film in 3D IMAX, and I must say that I don’t think I noticed a specific 3D or IMAX scene, as it seemed indistinguishable to the rest of the film. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.

One thing is certain, if and when a sequel of this film is made (sequels are the name of the money making cinematic game), it has a lot to live up to, and sometimes past success is the most difficult marker of critiquing a sequel. I normally expect about one good film a year, but seeing The Hunger Games makes 2012 a year of prospective positive expectations. I’m quite looking forward to the coming Ridley Scott ‘Prometheus’ film, as well as (excuse my primal tendencies) Expendables 2. However having met the quota of good films already I have no expectations.

Michael

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Review: ‘Barbarians’, by Barrie Keefe

There is that old line by Adorno that poetry after the holocaust is barbaric.Michael reminded me of this line after I came out of seeing a play earlier this week. What I saw was ugliness, bleak despair in Doc Martens and suspenders. I don’t normally get to visit the Noumenal Realm crew but an unrelated occaision brought us all together, and since I was local to South London, I was told about a burgeoning grassroots cultural group called the ‘Tooting Arts Club’ who have been around for a bit over a year now. Ever the ones for new experiences, about three of us went to see a play that we knew nothing about.

‘Barbarians’, by Barrie Keefe apparently debuted about 20 years ago in the early 1990s. This being the early 2010s, there is a layer of significance about this play that resonates with the present day. Thinking about what Adorno wrote on the holocaust all those years ago gives a sense of distance about what the Second World War was, as seven decades have passed and those with living memories are fewer in number. This play however, is set in the late 1970s. The play was set in a time period so close, many of the audience (the various 50 and 60 somethings) were probably the same age as the youths depicted in the play. The slightly younger mid-30 to mid-40 somethings were probably familiar with the economic downturn of the late 1980s and early 1990s where the play originally had its run. During the break in a conversation with Antisophie, we commented how although we were hardly alive or conscious adults during either the 1970s or late 80s, this play cuts close to the bone for us as well.

The situation is Lewisham, an area of London not too much unlike Tooting. The time is set (I think) over a year or two in the late 70s. The most interesting part about the play was that there was no distinction between audience and stage. As we came in to the play, one of the cast members was hanging around and engraving various things on the wall. The ‘stage’ was a former building dedicated for some kind of youth employment scheme in a bygone year, which is pertinent since the first act refers to the careers advice given to the characters at the time: train for a profession and get a competitive edge in the job market. Of course, everybody knew that such a plan didn’t work in difficult economic times.

Bell’s post-industrial society came to mind when the characters were not impressed at the prospect of working in a factory filled with predominantly women, gender roles associated with industrial work and masculinity were strongly ingrained in that generation. There was no ‘stage’ as such, but rather different aspects of the building were through the process of the performance. The characters would break the forth wall and ask us, as the audience to kindly stand up and sit in a different place, the chairs were then reorganised and we faced a different part of the building to see the next act of the play. In this way, there was no distinction between the audience and the performers. One performer flirted with one of the female audience members (which I must presume is part of the script) and at another point, another person’s alcoholic drink was almost spilled the other actor jumped on the table. The degree of eye contact and talking with us, the audience was deeply uncomfortable for me. Michael commented that it reminded him of when he went to see Marc Maron a while back and Maron looked at him and said, almost with mimicry ‘will you be my dad?’.

The changing nature of space was very innovative, and it helped the audience engage more with what this play was about. I normally read plays as opposed to watching them (the same goes for Opera), and there is a comfortable distance when reading about difficult subjects or even pleasant ones. Being in a stage so physically close to the actors (one of them in fact bumped into me during the pitch black scene change) and the setting of the play based in a time period very close to the present ensured that every member of that audience felt engaged.

The play was deeply upsetting. The main themes of the play seemed to be about the lack of sense of belonging among the characters Jan, Louis and Paul. The play also featured a distinct sense of betrayal from many sections of society to these three youths. Paul’s betrayal by his duplicitous cousin who he is unwittingly playing as a pawn to; Jan’s betrayal from both his family through his absentee father to his unreliable uncle whom he places much confidence in; finally there is Louis, the black British character who finds friendship among the other two white protagonists but also plays a pawn to Paul’s various schemes. Louis appears at the end as the most successful character who manages to find a profession and a bit of an earning, but ultimately cannot escape racism.

There is a bit of racism in this play. Michael commented how brutal it was, plus adding the unease of being in a predominantly white bourgeois audience. With many performances, like say, Antigone or Dido and Aeneas, one can walk away from the play with a sense of distance and perhaps eat cake or whatever it is people do after plays. With this play, walking out of that building from the 1970s to 2012 really made no difference. I entered a building where the Conservative Government were more interested in party political quibbles than Youth Employment, where money was tight for many people concerned and many people felt betrayed by the false hopes and aspirations taught to them by the older generation. The only real difference between going inside that building and coming out to Tooting High Street was the smartphone in my pocket. What made this play really successful was that the sense of despair and ugliness about the time of the 1970s is something that one cannot ignore, moreover, the similar sense of pessimism for the present day is something we are reminded of. I thought to myself that this was a great piece by the expressionist standard.

I was chatting to Antisophie on Skype earlier today who made a couple of observations to the point of trying to be funny, it was lost on me. Antisophie’s first remark was to tell me about a gag on this week’s episode of Have I Got News For You, a popular panel show about current affairs. The joke was concerning the Jubiliee celebrations, that the Jubilee committee asked the Punk band Sex Pistols whether they would celebrate the Diamond Jubilee in the way that they did with the Jubilee in 1977 by re-forming. The punchline was that they declined because John Lyndon was unavailable, as he was filming for a butter commercial. I then was reminded of Adorno’s thesis that the Culture Industry eventually subverts the subversive into aggressive capitalism. The other mocking comment she made was that she said after the play Michael probably listened to Burzum on the way home [editorial: I did (MP)] feeling some disingenuous sense of facile sensibility. While there was some acknowledgement into the youth culture and movements of the time (Notting Hill Carnival, Punk Music), the play does not overplay the ‘radical’ aspects of these cultural forms by putting some balance about the boring aspects of the 1970s. There was for instance a 1970s original poster informing us about V.D. and the stage changes were aided by some crass televisual advertisments of the time, such as the inadvertently ridiculous female perfume named ‘Tramp’. It was a good call not to overplay the revolutionary aspects youth culture of the time, that’s for the aging trustafarians who boast their punk anarchist credentials to local ramblers who pass their farm house.

Michael commented on how the whirling and altering nature of the stage, as well as the near-contemporary setting of the 1970s reminds him of Goffman’s notion of the front and back stage. So much of society is the front stage that the back stage is an exhaustingly small domain. The embarrassment of the audience when the actors would look at us and talk to us reminded me of the small space that Goffman’s ‘back stage’ has in social life. The fact that one could not escape the subjects of the play by simply leaving the performance venue also made us uncomfortable. The emphasis on performance in social behaviour, aggrivated by the rise of service industries and the perfectionism of television media as it tries to make real life into its ‘reality’ reminds me of how little space there is for a back stage. There is betrayal and objectification from larger social forces. The final essence of the play is that something’s gotta give if the youth of today are under such pressure and under such psychologically destructive forces that undermine identity, group affiliation or the failure of aspiration.This was expressed in the play by the hint of racialist politics by the character Paul, or the hint of post-traumatic stress from Jan. Or we may simply be victims by other victims, like Louis.

A few hours after the play once I got home, I was reminded of a more modern parable: Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. I thought of the Joker because he seems to represent a villain that emerges from the social conditions of Gotham City. In that way, he represents all of the corruption and ills and lies of the society that he came from. The extreme psychotic criminality makes more sense in the context of Gotham City’s corruption. Just like the ending of Barbarians, when economic and social conditions become difficult, something’s gotta give.

Destre

We also very much appreciate the work of Tooting Arts Club for their latest venture, but also their past and (hopefully) future events.

Musing: A life in data

Earlier this week my External Hard Drive sort-of crashed. I say sort of because it came to a point where I knew it would become non-functioning and I migrated all of the data to another space before it fully died. I had a moment of shock for a variety of reasons. I’ll talk about two of them in this post. One reason is that I came to realise how much of my life can be gleaned from the data within that external drive, and perhaps more valuable than most physical objects I have, that data is a record of my life. The secondary point pertains to my ‘dependence’ on computers, cloud hosting and other such technological marvels of the modern world. Every solution has a problem, and I came to realise the problems of my over-dependence on digitising my life, this shall be the second part of my post.

A life in memories

When my hard drive faltered, my first thought was like the Titanic ship officers were apparently depicted in Cameron’s 1997 film, the proverbial ‘women and children’ most vital files must be preserved! This involved an extensive scan of my paper records which include most of my paper files and folders from about 2004-5 to 2009-10 (I’ve not digitally archived my files since 2010). I then took a lot of unsorted files, miscellaneous audio recordings and songs I’ve made. Then I found some pictures. Antisophie made a joke to me once saying that the perfume she got from a romantic partner lasted longer than the relationship itself. Digital memories have a shelf life which is potentially longer than the human lives that they describe. They may be our equivalent of cave drawings for whoever may come to know of us humans one day. Or it may be a lot of dirty poisonous plastic bottles and argon filled disposed fridges which are semi-degraded in deep sea waters which continue to poison its environment in the future earth.

When I looked at my archive I found various pictures and videos. I sw lots of happy times. I saw an old flame and her vibrant beauty; I saw my little nephew from birth to when he started to talk and then I saw some people who are now deceased. I had a realisation to myself that these pictures and videos are essentially all I have left of them, even if the angles and focus are a bit off or they didn’t look particularly prepared to a picture, its still all that remains, as a digital and as an human memory.Time is frozen in a photograph, and it gave me pause for reflecting on what once was.

One person whom I barely recognised was myself! I found a few pictures of myself back in about 2008 when, according to a few testimonies, I was at my ‘sexiest’. Back then I had ridiculously long and thick hair which almost went to my waist plus I was much more arrogant and times were much more innocent. In recent months for unrelated reasons, I have been thinking about contextualising the past few years of my life. In terms of social context, my own personal narrative and my wider family narrative, I was thinking about how times are different. One thing I noted amusingly with my sister recently was what life was like before she had children, she jokingly implied that she missed those days and also implied that it seems so long ago that she didn’t remember that there was such a time! It’s funny how 4 years can change lives.

Thinking about the past I have thought in some ways that I am a bit wiser, and a bit more organised. I feel that I’ve worked a lot on many of my flaws and I still am working on a few ever vigilantly. I’ve seen the past few years as a journey and one with many difficulties. Seeing the archives which I forgot existed then forced me to change my perspective yet again. Without looking at the archives, I had been thinking about the past. After looking at my archives I then changed my gloss on recent history. Times seemed much more innocent back then and a large degree of that is due to the political climate. I remember the days when Sainsbury’s basics had a super-cheap range of everything from chocolate to brandy, which, in South London parlance, I caned. Things like job stability, economic growth were much different too and from the perspective of 2012 there seemed to be a luxury of ignorance.

I miss the old me. Sometimes I wonder if it was the hair that I miss, or being so naively arrogant (both of which constituted a sense of sexiness). I perhaps miss the innocence of the time and I hate how the present feels like a redux of the late 1980s or early 1990s downturn and pessimism. Fry and Laurie sketches where the Police became Privatised or where idiots appeared on television shows are now more like satanic prophecies than quaint liberal absurd humour and my own political concerns are diminished by the fact that Real Life Stuff is more pressing a concern than say, activism or waxing political, proto-socal theorist style. The tone of our blog has significantly diminished as part of Real Life Stuff getting in the way, and I do realise I could talk about more interesting things, more socially prescient things. I see much change through digitising my life and there’s a great advantage to it.

The Umbilical USB

I keep records of financial transactions, boring administrative documents, bills and so forth and I would ideally like a unified and organised manner of keeping it all together. Google’s various appendages have been ultimately useful to me over the recent years, and I’ve discovered more and more applications and services that also help me archive and organise my life. Then there’s a point where it becomes too much: do I really need to use twitter? Do I really need PInterest? The answer to both of those is no. I do however, find Google Reader immensely helpful. I also find GCal a lifesaver. I find facebook more significant for contacting and organising things than my boile phone, in fact I use so many cloud based applications that I can get away with my phone being used only for SMS and phone calls. The irony of me being a phone Luddite is lost on most people! Most people don’t use IFTTT to syncronise their twitter to flickr, or use boolean functions to automatically save news articles to a CMS for which is later used for creating a dossier.

There are great uses for cloud applications, or even backing up data through hosting services as a way of preserving those important things. I have learned however that there have been instances where a paper based method could have been ultimately easier for me in some aspects. If I had a physical photo album, I would be more tactile and perhaps I could physically note the presence of photo albums of the past decade and pick them up to reminisce more often, instead of whenever I’m having a computer crisis and I end up almost never seeing these photos otherwise.

I’ve developed a system which links most aspects of my life together using cloud applications, I might talk about that in another blog, but it has a lot of personal implications for me. Realising that I’m dependent on GCal to organise my day makes me more stupid in some ways: I don’t need to remember things if I’ve already set it in a timetable. I also don’t need to decide things if I have planned and decided what I am to do in advance. This means I get to think less. I must admit that there is a skill to memorising and keeping a mental note of plans and keeping it all in your head. I used to be known for my exceptional skills of recollecting, and GCal is basically outsourcing some of my brain computation to the cloud. I consider it part of what philosophers have called the ‘Extended Mind Hypothesis’. Antisophie also jokes that I am a real life ‘Otto’ with his notebook.

Having GCal is great, except when the internet is down, or when my computer breaks down (both situations faced in the past year). What if there is a massive EMP or natural disaster to cut out connection to communications infrastructures or electronics devices? There is a place for the older physical methods of keeping records and data, there’s a place for keeping data on your computer and on servers as well as just the cloud. Backing up is not longer considered an 100% efficient way of preserving those precious memories or important work files. I think you probably need about at least 3-4 copies in order to really have some protection: A backup on a detachable medium; a cloud back up; ‘the original medium’, maybe a P(hysical) copy if applicable, and a second copy using one of the aforementioned means just to be secure.

A few years back I was reading a website (the exact name of it escapes me) which had this radical revolutionary idea: you only need to own a few things in your life: have enough clothes for a few days (and circulate/clean them regularly); have a few personal and sentimental items and have your laptop computer. At the time I read this website, the ultraportable laptops (which never really took off) were in vogue and were of low memory capacity. This website proposed to keep all of one’s memories and records and personal items as digital versions: ebooks, mp3 files, youtube videos and image hosted photos.

There is an extent to which I adhere to that digitally minimal philosophy. I suppose I’m personally attracted to the fact that I can still have my alienware in this minimalist ascetic idea. Especially since my alienware is a decadent overpowered piece of technology which is metaphorically and (as I’m typing right now) literally on a pedestal which centralises all of my life. It’s nice to have one’s life centralised, unified, rationalised. I think Weber would consider it a nightmare, and Kant may have considered this digital age as the potential ideal of his ‘science is organised knowledge, wisdom is organised life’. Personally, I like being away from my cloud from time to time. I find it liberating when I leave the house and I don’t need my phone, or I don’t even need a watch. As much as I am attached to technology and so reliant on cloud computing and the web to organise and enact much of my life: I also really like when it has nothing to do with it as well! Recently I’ve gotten involved in a community garden, a choir and I play badminton and try to do some weight and circuit training with a few mates.

If there’s one thing I don’t miss about my 21 year old (with the lovely long hair) self its the inflexibility and sense that I had it all set and sorted in my ideas and the way I organised myself. I don’t, and my reliance on GCal is probably going to change. There will be some new app that does it better and I’ll change. Perhaps the greatest experience I found from revisiting my memories is knowing that I am adaptable and things will change. Photos will stay the same forever and the past is fixed. Today and tomorrow are (at least from an epistemic point of view) undetermined.

Michael

Reviewing the book reviews (continued): Male erotic capital, sex work, puritanism and cynicism

Continuing the look at the reviews and pieces on Hakim’s ‘Erotic Capital’, I look at Will Self’s review of the book, and the response from Quiet Riot Girl of Guardian Watch. Before that I might just give an honourable mention to a very peculiar interview described by The Guardian’s Zoe Williams. I just feel bemused at the way this interview seemingly happened. Also looking at Self’s review and QRG’s response to it, I think perhaps some thematic concerns should address this post:

On Sex Work

Will Self’s review highlights the claim that Hakim makes that sex work should not be demonised, and it would seem that Self is inclined to agree. However, Self does seem to feel a sense of mourning or acknowledge a loss of innocence from addressing the reality that ‘Erotic Capital’ portrays, through Hakim’s notion of female gender empowerment through sexual empowerment. QRG also addresses this as a form of a backward step in the journey towards equality.  Self rightly points out how Hakim creates strange bedfellows of radical feminists and the religiously conservative, and how they have similar views on the public display of feminine sexuality.

On Anglo-saxon sexual puritanism

Hakim gives the example of a line from Orwell’s 1984 that the most radical thing a person can do is engage in their sexuality, which is what Winston Smith does as his form of rebellion against the all-controlling state. Williams tries to push Hakim on this point and the latter does not respond so well on this issue. Williams notes how Hakim is initially reluctant to give examples of ‘french and german feminists’ who are apparently so much more liberal and realistic about sexuality than anglo-american feminists. Hakim in ‘;Erotic Capital’ addresses the cultural differences between anglophone women and their european sisters in sexual attitudes and even in the statistics on extra marital affairs (the section in that book is very explorative on a subject that people wish to pretend doesn’t exist).

There is some merit to the sexual puritanism thesis, which Williams does concede to agree with, but Hakim refuses in the interview to co-operate about any other questions on this topic, such as cross-cultural comparisons (Hakim briefly in her own book addresses a few). I have a suspicion that Hakim’s puritanism as an historical thesis is as broad and generic as Weber’s ‘Protestant ethic’, but it also may be subject to criticisms similar to the ones put to Weber: namely, the question of alternative cultural histories.

On men

What about the men? Aren’t men erotic capital-ists too? This is the point that QRG makes. Hakim does address this to some extent with a few anecdotes (such as an older woman who discover her erotic capital after a neighbour makes a sexual advance on her, then turns him down and considers the option of being sexually involved with a younger man). Being a man myself, I was considering that male erotic capital has a place alongside that of women. Hakim acknolwedges this and the objection that QRG holds is correct, but it isn’t really an objection because its already taken up. I get the impression that QRG didn’t read the book herself (but she does admit to reading a couple of Hakim’s other academic articles).

Male erotic capital can be seen in all kinds of places: gay culture, celebrities and Hakim goes into some detail about notable attractive men (David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and one of my favourite celebrity men: George Clooney). The difference is between men and women, that men may have erotic capital, but it is the perceiver who grants that sexual and social power. Women have so much erotic capital because men are always gagging for it (to put it crudely), and (male) gay culture  which has much of an emphasis on looks (such as fasination with body archetypes such as the clones, bears and twinks). Heterosexual men only would have erotic capital if women desired them, and the stats show that women tend to be less sexually focused so proportionately it is women who have most to gain from exploiting their looks, compared to men. That’s not of course to say men do not use erotic capital either, just that its not as big a part of an inventory.

The Goffmanesque cynic conclusion

Day’s critique is an example of how not to review a book. I’m reminded of a story told in my undergraduate class on Goffman, that one objection to Goffman in the reception to presentation of self in everyday life is that Goffman is ‘too clever by half’. The meaning of that response never seemed clear to me at the time. Sometimes the problem with a work of sociology is not that its wrong in some way, but the horrifying conclusions of if it is right. Goffman’s ‘presentation of self’ is a great example of this. The world of social agents becomes more of a drama, where we are all performing roles. The critical question becomes: where is the human in this world of agency? Likewise, if we are in a world obsessed by looks, where is equality? In a sense, equality comes from the random distribution of attractiveness. Good looks entail social upward mobility, in the same way that intelligence used to. In that way there is an equality of random distribution. As a moral or social equality, a world obessed by looks highlights the ways in which social attitudes are horribly judgmental. Consider for instance, the saying that there has not been a bald US president in the television age, or the fact that US presidents have become taller over the years.

Signs of attractiveness fuel the voyeuristic media age, Hakim is pointing to a social narrative of image and its importance. If we are to treat the pretty in such favourable ways, what may we do about the disfigured? Hakim’s erotic capital may read like the horrible antithesis of Goffman’s Stigma, but instead of addressing disfigurement, we are in an big brother house asylum of popularism and judgment by good looks. If we are to accept the myths of attractiveness, which are to some extent inecapable, we face a degree of psychological damage. I end this post by sharing this video:

Michael

On people who claim to be offended: Watching Ricky Gervais’ ‘Derek’

I’ve hardly been following much TV these days, and the few things that I do tend to reflect my political and opinionated tendencies. I like comedies and sometimes documentaries. I mostly do podcasts nowadays because I am mostly at my computer during the recent days and podcasts serves nicely as background while I’m actively searching, or reading, or doing some other task. There are some things that I must follow if I find out about it, such as new seasons of already established things that I like (for example, when the next Red Dwarf series comes out, I’ll watch it even though I expect it will be disappointing and crass).

Ricky Gervais’ comedy writing and performing is often about social and cultural issues. There are layers to many of his works, such as the pseudoreality of playing himself in ‘Life’s too short’, or the parody of the docu-soap of ‘The Office’. Gervais’ latest vignette (which may turn into a TV series), Derek, is about a man who works in a care home for the elderly. There is an amusing presence of Gervais’ creative-partner-that-isn’t-stephen-merchant, Karl Pilkington (playing Douglas, who seems to be a caretaker/custodian), who always brings comedic value to his roles, surprisingly both characters are not playing some real-life equivalent of their persona (although Pilkington comes close).

I thought I would write about watching the series because there is one thing that I was quite oblivious about. All I knew was that it was a Gervais creation and that alone is a reason for me to watch it. I then saw some reviews and comments on twitter and my Google Reader feeds saying how it was contraversial and offensive. I did not realise until half-way through the piece that Gervais’ character is apparently exhibiting some form of learning disability. Most of the behaviours exhibited by the character seemed unusual and eccentric, and there was a suggestion that Gervais’ ‘Derek’ character was the butt of most of the characters’ jokes.One gag where Derek’s character goes to get a pudding while an elderly man sitting next to him exploits the oppurtunity of Derek’s absence from his seat to take a remote control and change the channel leads to Derek eventually sitting on a bowl of custard accidently as he changed his focus on getting the remote back after getting his pudding, is to me, the kind of thing that can happen to anyone and works as a simplistic and knee-jerk reaction of hubristic humour, not that much different to many similar physical gags by Sascha Baron-Cohen’s ‘Borat’ gags. In that particular gag, it may be seen that the joke is about the character’s lesser intelligence or its just the funniness of having custard on his bum. I think it’s the latter.

What really gave it away that Derek had a learning disability was a scene when he goes to a pub after work with one of his colleagues (Hannah, played by Kerry Godliman). There are some (as the casting at the end describes) ‘chav girls’ who are making some very cruel comments about Derek; his age; his demeanour; his clothes and the implicit comparison  they are making between him and Hannah, saying thing such as how she “can do better”. While it is depicted that Derek’s colleagues can be irritated by him (particularly Douglas), they stay loyal to him all the same. Hannah motioned Derek to leave the pub from the intolerant women by the bar and then attacked one of them, as a gesture of solidarity with her colleague.

I’m reminded of this because of an anecdote Michael told me:

At the gym where I work out, there is a cleaner who seems to be there all the time (considering that the gym is open about 15 hours a day and I’m never there at a ‘usual’ time). I used to see him chatting away with other patrons, particularly parents of children attending classes, and he was always friendly and kind. Initially he seemed very cold when I passed him or when he told me if a particular cloakroom is closed, but as I’ve been there regularly for over a year now, I’ve found him to warm to me in recent months, presumably now that I’m as familiar to that gym as the barbell is to the weights room. I noticed that some of his colleagues would suspiciously laugh or say things about that cleaner which seemed very rude yet he would be oblivious that it was rude. I then noticed a manager chastise these employees who told them that this cleaner had a learning disability, to which the staff suddenly were silenced.

I’m reminded of something that (I think it was) Foucault said about illness, namely that people are often ill because they are treated poorly. That inversion of illness always seemed wrong to me in some way: surely people are ill because of some biological basis? It is often said that the significant costs to a condition such as HIV/AIDS is not the medical condition itself but the way society has come to treat those individuals. I wouldn’t have learned that Derek had anything so different about him unless I saw the reactions from other people. I did suspect that his character was unusual, but I thought that was part of the character.

In that way Gervais has opened up a thought to me: when considering a person like Derek, how do we define an understanding of him? Through the way he speaks? or his clothes? his hunched walk? Or perhaps by the features that his character exhibited, such as his unequivocal kindness to the care home residents, his friendliness (sometimes overfriendliness) with his colleagues and his excitable temperament towards having a good time while working. The second part of the piece becomes much darker and less comic, with the misanthropic perpetual singleness of Hannah’s character; the prejudiced ‘chav’ patrons of the pub and a scene where one of the care home residents dies.

There isn’t a joke about Derek’s intelligence, nor is there a pandering to tropes or stereotypes about the elderly or learning disabilities. I was half expecting jokes about the elderly, or some kind of prank showing the professional incompetence of the care home staff. How surprised was I then, to see a greater degree of sensitivity about disability than the likes of ‘Lifes’ too short’ (which features a scene where dwarves are literally tossed into some skittles) or ‘Extras’ (which featured a character with cerebral palsy, although the really offensive scene is where Gervais’ character makes a fool out of himself to a Catholic priest, with some inevitable priest molestation innuendos).

I find it disappointing, almost bemusing, to see how there is so much negative response to Gervais’ latest endeavour. I almost think that they haven’t even seen it, and are writing from a platform of being offended as a form of art. I’m also sure that Gervais anticipated this kind of ideosyncratic response, and even provoked it purposely. I think that Gervais provoked the sense of offense about learning disabilities not by any form of stereotypical or negative depiction of the character, but as an artist trying to make a point. Gervais is all about making realities within reality, and the pseudo-reality of fake offendedness (not a word) is the social point about disability that people are oblivious about.

Learning disabilities, as well as other kinds of marginalised groups (such as say, the elderly, transgender or physically deformed) are usually invisible to pop culture and the media at large, except if there is a story which is about them being disabled, old, transgendered or deformed. When is there ever a news story about how a famous spokesperson for a famous brand/band/company makes an announcement, and also happens to be transgendered or has a deformity, and the comment response is not actually about that part of their lives, but what they have to say?

Invisibility is the most easy form of tolerance, because you don’t have to actually be around these people to accept them. The response of being offended by a show such as Derek shows how intolerant these people are. The show is, to Gervais’ own admission in a recent interview, not about Derek’s disability but his character and the way that he is percieved by others and is treated as an outsider. People can be outsiders for all kinds of reasons, and often their very presence of is a form of ‘breaching’. The example of Cerrie Burnell is a case in point. Burnell’s presence on CBeebies is in no way about her dyslexia, or that she was born with one arm, but the complainers made it about her arm (it’s also odd that they didn’t complain about her dyslexia, but if it was a visible disability I’m sure they would, too). The intolerance is about seeing people as they are: as characters with personalities, characters with flaws, virtues, interests, hopes, desires, sexuality or a sense of humour.The show is about an unlikely group of people who are marginalised in various ways: Hannah is a perpetual singleton whose work commitments have become her life; Derek and his friend who doesn’t actually work at the care home are bound together as outcasts who find companionship a mutual benefit (even if it has its difficulties). Gervais himself says that the character does not have a specific condition and perhaps degree is the imposition from the us, the audience.

Sinistre

I liked ‘The Hunger Games’ (I don’t normally like films, but when I do, I blog about it with a most interesting man in the world meme reference)

Gene Wilder speaks the truth

Last weekend I was out with a friend to see a film at the cinema and an obligatory pint afterwards. It has become a ritual with a few university and sixth form friends that we have to meet up every 3-6 months and catch up over some beverage. That in itself is a subject all in itself, but today I would like to sing praises about a film I saw last week: The Hunger Games, which is a ‘Young Adult’ (I don’t qualify as YA by the way) piece of fiction based on a book, and book series of the same name by one Suzanne Collins, who had the esteem of working on a few children’s shows between the 1990s and 2000s.

As far as popular book/franchise fictions go, this has quite a favourable response from me. I haven’t (yet) read the books, but it has led to a lot of people in the meme generating world to go all hipster and say how lots of people read the books before it was cool, or also go hipster and say ‘they preferred the book’ &c. I’m a Johnny-come-lately and a casual film goer and as far as my fandom goes I am striclty a star wars/RPG type of person so I’m definately not informed about The Hunger Games.

The things I really liked about the film are as follows:

  1. Lenny Kravitz plays an effete yet sympathetic stylist. Nuff said
  2. The protagonist is female, and very strong, assertive, self-determined and also has a caring dimension too.
  3. Female protagonists are pretty rare, and it’s great that she isn’t defined by how she likes boys or the typical trivialisation about women. There is a relationship storyline, but she is in some respects a reluctant party and her participation in it is nuanced and complicated (something that also promises for plotline in the sequels)
  4. There is a distinct ‘political’ message about the book, what it is exactly I am still not sure about. I think the story gives a picture of a totalitarian world but also combined with the contemporary fascination with global media and the voyeuristic nature of how people feed of tragedies or personal problems. Consider for instance the fascination with natural disasters, violent crimes, or even the way how people in game shows/televisual competition shows like ‘The Apprentice’ or ‘X Factor’ give sob stories about how it was their dying aunt’s dream that such-and-such a competitor sung whitney houston on live television.
  5. The film would pass the Bechdel Test. You would be surprised how many films don’t.
  6. I’m an action hero fan by heart and that probably won’t ever change, and the film definately had a lot of violence in it for gruesome violence voyeurs like me. Much of the violence wasn’t actually shown but more insinuated (after all, it is a film about children killing each other). The use of suggestion instead of actually showing violence is very dramatic, and for a younger audience to watch a film like this, gives a great amount of shock and disgust to the audience. A film like this is probably more adult than a crappy rom-com rated higher than this in terms of the disturbing themes.

I have become quite discerning about what I call a good film and this is one of them*. The Hunger Games has been the best recent film that I’ve seen since Inception. Bravo to Lionsgate (who are better known for their lowbrow action films) for making such a bold decision to make a teenager-oriented film, and for giving teenagers something more interesting than Twilight and Harry Potter. I kind of wish I had something that cool when I was a teenager.

Michael

Lemma*: There are by contrast, films I enjoy watching over and over again that fail to be good films, such as Harold and Kumar go to White Castle, Commando, Crank 2, The Expendables (only for that AA-12 shotgun scene) or Revenge of the Sith.